Sunday, January 23, 2011

Over and Out

By now you’ve all heard of Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC. No doubt over the next few days all of us, myself included, will attempt to somehow piece together the who, what, where, why and how of it all. Did he quit? Was he forced out? Was it a mutual decision? If I had to guess, I would say it was all of the above.

For most of Olbermann’s, shall we say, tumultuous career at MSNBC, he was always walking the tightrope between the passionate zealot for reason and journalistic integrity and the over the top, sometimes, pompous ass his critics always portrayed him as. The special comment section of his Countdown program began with a scathing and thorough rebuking of Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. Olbermann lashed into the former Secretary of Defense for having the gall to question the patriotism and loyalty of people who questioned the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It was moments like that and others like them that endeared Olbermann to a Left that felt disenfranchised from the political discussion that was taking place in the country.

Progressives had few reasons to be optimistic throughout much of the early part of the first decade of the 21st century. The Bush Administration pretty much did whatever it wanted to do, aided and abetted by a mainstream press that at best was impotent and at worst was complicit in the deceit, as well as a growing right-wing slant spurred on by the rise of Fox News and A.M. talk radio. The failure of the Air America network was like rubbing salt in the wound. Olbermann’s voice at least made some of us feel a bit better about our lot.

But, there was that tightrope. For all the fire and brimstone he brought to the chair he occupied, there were moments that made you cringe and recoil, as if to say, “Is he losing his mind?” The Scott Brown tirade in 2009 was quite frankly embarrassing, and Jon Stewart’s lampooning of it on his Daily Show underscored what many on the Left had never wanted to come to grips with: that no matter how righteous your position might be, when you engage in the same kind of demagoguery and tactics your opponents use to slander their opponents, you have in essence become one with them.

And while some would argue that the good always outweighed the bad, the truth was the bad was beginning to get a little too much to bare. Last year Olbermann was suspended for making campaign contributions to political candidates, a clear violation of MSNBC policy. While I criticized the network’s decision in a letter I wrote to its president, Phil Griffin, noting that other network on-air personalities had committed similar transgressions, and even drawing a distinction with Fox News and their active endorsements of and financial contributions to Republican candidates, the simple truth was Keith got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. When he was reinstated, he apologized to the viewers, but not to the network, the first outward indication that all was not well in Countdown land.

Of course the problems, in all likelihood, ran much deeper than a mere out of control outburst or two or three, or an improper campaign contribution. As I also mentioned in my letter to Griffin, Olbermann had become for millions the face of progressive journalism. He was both “a beacon for us, as well as a bull's eye for conservative ire.” It was that bull’s eye that I fear may have brought this pimple to a head, for while Olbermann helped put MSNBC on the map and brought it to a solid second place in cable news – yes ahead of CNN – the simple truth is that the reputation the network was garnering was beginning to rub some people the wrong way. Despite the insistence by the Right that all of the mainstream media is biased toward the Left, the evidence is quite the contrary. Much, if not all of it, remains, if anything, about as apolitical – and boring – as you can get. The major news networks do all they can to refrain from being seen as taking sides, even to a fault. MSNBC was the exception. Its on-air personalities, led by Olbermann, Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, went out of their way to stir the pot, and that stirring caused waves along with the inevitable backlash. Whether deserved or not, MSNBC was viewed by many as the Left’s version of Fox News, and that just didn’t sit well with the suits at Rockefeller Center. What better way to mollify critics than to offer up the proverbial son of Abraham as a sacrifice?

While I don’t think that the Comcast acquisition was the trigger here, let’s just say that both sides knew the writing was on the wall. Keith wasn’t happy with either the way he was being treated, or the direction the network was heading, or both, and the network was looking for a way to move on, as it were. The New York Times has reported that both sides had been negotiating an amiable exit for two years. Who knows? What we do know is if it hadn’t been this Friday, it probably would’ve been the next one or perhaps one down the road a bit. In the end, Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC was inevitable given the volatility of the former and the concerns of the latter. In my own experience dealing with upper management, I have discovered one universal and undeniable truth: whenever there is a clash or philosophical disagreement between employee and employer, the employer, in the end, will always win out. The employee either accepts that truth or he moves on.

For my part, I am going to miss Olbermann. Despite the overdone antics, no one was better at holding the feet of the Right to the fire. His “Worst Persons” segment was the crown jewel of his program and was eagerly anticipated by many of us on the Left. While Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh were his favorite piñatas, he was equally merciless on just about anything or anyone he deemed contemptible. And while I would’ve liked him more if he had had a sense of humor or possessed even a modicum of humility, his caustic style was nonetheless effective. Love him, hate him, there was nobody on cable TV like him, and I suspect it will be quite some time before he will be replaced, if ever.

Wherever Olbermann lands – and I think it would be foolish to think he is gone for good – the legacy he has left behind will serve to remind his contemporaries that journalism needn’t be banal or devoid of passion to possess integrity, something the executives at CNN would do well to remember. In fact, wouldn’t it be ironic if Olbermann somehow ended up there. Overnight he would transform the perpetual Sominex substitute into at least something worth watching.

For now, we have youtube to keep us company and to reminisce about the good old days.

Good night and good luck.


jasdye said...

time to say something about Egypt now. ;)

Peter Fegan said...

Working on it.